10 Ways to Make Money from 3D Printing

I recently identified 3D printing as one of the 13 Trends That Are Changing the World and compiled 3D Printing Resources for Beginners, but this being a blog about the business of technology, I wanted to create a list of 10 possible businesses that could be created around the 3D printing industry. You can use the STAIR process to figure out which one best suits your past skills, experience, and equipment:

10 Ways to Make Money from 3D Printing

  • Sell raw materials to 3D printer suppliers – 3D printing materials include many types of plastics to higher-end filament like metals, paper, and ceramics. Stainless steel, for example, comes in powder form and can be infused with bronze. Likewise, silver can be mixed with wax. Any business with access to these raw materials stands to benefit from an increase in 3D printing production.
  • Sell 3D printer supplies to 3D printers – Right now most 3D printers use plastic PLA, ABS, or PVA filaments. There are already a large host of printing material suppliers, but it’s still not something you can pick up at your local Wal-Mart…yet. It’s too late to have a first-mover advantage, but you might not want that anyway. Remember, Apple wasn’t the first one to make MP3 players.
  • Make and sell your own 3D printer – Did you know that the Makerbot is open source? At least it was. With the help of some well-laid plans and an Arduino board, you can build your own 3D printer. Make it your own and you can start your own line of 3D printers. Here’s a guide on how to build a 3D printer, but it’s one thing to build them. You’ll also have to learn how to sell them.
  • 3D print objects as a service – 3D printing services like Sculpteo, Shapeways, and Ponoko are showing us all how this is done, but that’s only three and there’s a 99% chance that none of them are local to where you live. While the Internet is great for many things, there is value to having a local printer to print everything from trophies to customized cup lids for restaurants.
  • Scan 3D objects as a service – If you can afford a $230 Kinect for Windows you can start a 3D scanning business. This is what Reconstruct.me does.  In November of 2012 Microsoft announced Kinect for Windows. In that article there is a link to Skanect, which is “3D scanning made easy”. I’m not talking about writing software here, I’m talking about buying a device and using software as a service.
  • Create a marketplace/trading system for 3D printable objects – I thought I was the first to think of this, but of course I was wrong. That’s exactly what Thingiverse is and it’s part of what Shapeways does. If your’e interested in this business model, think niche – “the riches are in the niches” and the sooner you can drive deep down into a niche and setup shop, the more likely you are to succeed.
  • Sell 3D printer technology to oil companies and/or NASA – This is a process of taking an existing product and finding new markets for it. I did this when I suggested that Pebble Watches could be sold to Dentists. By identifying a market segment who could use a product, you’re going vertical and this is similar to driving down into a niche. In this case, the market is remote workers with big pocketbooks.
  • Consult with 3D printer companies on technology and logistics – Not every egghead who comes up with a new 3D printer is going to know how to run a 3D printer business. That’s where consultants and service companies that choose to go niche and vertical with 3D printing companies have a chance to succeed and grow. By serving the needs of a growing industry, your business can benefit too. Everybody wins.
  • Help guide and craft new copyright laws; give legal counsel – While you’re probably going to have to be or know a lawyer or lobbyist, there is definitely a growing need for legal counsel in this newly developing industry. Questions about what is and isn’t able to be licensed and what is or isn’t copyrighted is going to come to a head when people want to expand trademarked product‘s [fan fiction] universes.
  • Help market 3D printers or 3D printable objects – In the same way business professionals can help 3D printing companies manage customer development, build an e-commerce website, and develop organizational habits, they are going to need help learning how to advertise, how to market a product, and how to get more customers. They are going to need to learn SEO, content marketing, and how to build a platform.

Money Multiplier

Erich Stauffer on 3D PrintingIn monetary economics, a money multiplier is a ratio, which is generally believed to be 10 to 1 meaning that any dollar produced, produces 10 more dollars. A similar effect is true for business processes and opportunities. This due to a combination of the adjacent possible of new technologies and from the network effects that happen whenever a new business, process, or industry is born. The implications from this entirely new industry are enormous especially because it is mostly additive. 3D printing doesn’t replace or displace traditional manufacturing, it simply broadens it. Things that could have been created before were not because it didn’t make economic sense, but once people are given the opportunity and resources these new things will be created. It’s similar to how pictures of your food and friends weren’t important enough to carry a camera around for before, but now that your camera and sharing ability is on your phone, companies like Instagram exist and get bought by a billion dollars.

How’s it Going?

It’s been a wild ride, scary some times, highly enjoyable at others. I’m not sure how long it/I will last though. It always seems like I’m on the brink of going out of business and so I start applying for jobs, then more work comes in. Right now is like that.

I may have to start selling some of my affiliate sites to make ends meet. I’m developing some new products (like custom email signatures) as a way to get people ‘in the door’ and have had some success with those, but they don’t pay the bills.

I’ve invested in BNI and considered Rainmakers, but referrals from that are slow, far between, and lower-dollar than I’m used to getting on my own. I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining – I get to sleep in, spend more time with my kids, and have a loose schedule, but I’m afraid I’ve kept it too loose. I may have not worked ‘hard enough’ and now am in a bit of a pickle. Here’s what I’m doing to dig myself out:

Creating Work Habits

  • Waking up at the same time everyday
  • Eating breakfast everyday
  • Shaving and showering at night
  • Exercising during breaks between computer work

Focusing on Revenue

  • Making sure all client requests are processed
  • Proactively looking for opportunities to help clients and asking them for their business
  • Working on affiliate marketing as a valid revenue source
  • Applying for jobs that use my skill set

PS. I got all of my monthly client reports out today AND mowed my yard. Next I have a phone interview with a guy to discuss online marketing in Indianapolis.

How to Start Making Money on the Side

Recently a former co-worker and friend asked me about how I started making money on the side:

I’ve toyed around with a lot of ideas around how to start making money on the side and how to then move from that being side income to my main source of income, but I haven’t pursued anything too closely. I’ve actually picked up a huge work load in applications support at my day job. I’m now the primary support person for items processing, online banking, telephone banking, the company Intranet, the new auto-dialer, all instances of Sugar CRM ( we currently have 3), the online survey tool, the online enrollment tool, and last but not least I’m the main IT contact for the website. So things got really hectic for me, but I’ve realized that if I let myself get lost in that chaos it will only become harder to start making income on the side. For now I’m learning PHP and MySQL and hosting a website using Apache so that I can hopefully branch off and do some freelance work.

So you’re making more working for yourself than you did at your day job?

Yes, I’m able to make a living off of doing web design and IT consulting full-time as an independent contractor. The issues I have are not unique to my business though and that’s managing cash-flow. What that means is that although I make enough over time, it doesn’t always come in at the same rate I need it to go out for bills. In other words, it averages out alright, but isn’t always timed right. For example, this month I’m scheduled to make a $400 profit over my bills (something that never hardly happened when I was at my day job), but right now I don’t have anything. It’s like that pretty much every month and that’s because I didn’t have a savings account when I quit and I still don’t. (EDIT: I do now.)

I don’t think the itch to leave will ever really go away (unless you die inside), but there are ways to test the waters before you jump in. First of all, start thinking of your day job as your biggest client and try to stop ‘expecting’ a paycheck and start trying to ‘earn’ a paycheck. This will put you in the mindset you’ll need when dealing with clients outside of a employee relationship. When I left I had one boss, but now I have over 20 (the number of current clients). My time is not my own. It wasn’t then and it isn’t now. I have to work for them just like I had to work for my past employer. The difference is that if I work more, I get more (and I can charge more). I also get to sleep in and do whatever I want. 🙂

My recommendation to you would be to take advantage of where you’re at and LISTEN to what people are saying. What I mean by this is if you can start to hear what people’s problems are, stuff they complain about, and/or what their pain points are, that’s the beginning of discovering a product, service, or business that you could start in order to solve that need. You’re in a better position in some ways than I am for finding out that information. I would love to find out what problems commercial loan officers have or what problems their clients have. If you can find a problem that you can solve + a customer that is both willing and able to pay for that solution, you have a business idea. This is called customer development.

The key is to iterate your business idea until you have what’s called a product/market fit. Eric Ries talks about this in his book, Lean Startups, but you can also read Steve Blank’s work on it. They’ve worked together so they have similar ideas. But basically, the premise is to 1) discover a problem 2) hypothesize a solution 3) interview potential customers about the solution 4) refine the solution. Once you get to a product that the customer would be MAD at you if you took away from them, you have a product/market fit and then you get funding and build like crazy. There are other subtle variations (like starting with a product instead of a customer), but being customer-centric in everything you do will pay dividends.

One business idea that I don’t mind sharing with you is a “LED light bulb replacement service” where you go to a company like First Merchants and say, “I’d like to save you 40% off your lighting bill and would be happy to show you how it works by converting one of your branches to LED lighting at cost – if you like it, we’ll do the rest of your branches too, if not, we’ll go on our way and thank you for your time.” Essentially, you’re going in, finding out how many bulbs they have, estimating the cost upfront and the cost savings, and then swapping them out in one day. You can even do a buy-back on existing fluorescent light bulbs that you can either trash or sell to someone else. A similar idea is to paint their roofs white.

A typical day for me is waking up around 8, checking my email for emergency work, working on some projects for customers (usually web edits), reading up on subjects in my field, visit a customer at their location or at a restaurant for a meeting, attend a networking meeting or meetup at night, and then in bed by midnight. I recently joined a networking group called BNI and am active on Meetup.com. I run my own group called Indianapolis Marketing and attend several others as well as Tech Point meetings, which are put on by the State of Indiana. I use blogging to content market online, but that’s less successful than in-person networking for me. I’d be interested in hearing what you’re working on at work or in your ‘spare time’.

I know you sell your skills at SEO out to companies but I wasn’t sure if you were still scooping up domain names and putting content with ads up or not. Right now I have a few ideas that I’m going to try to do some research on what kind of market might be out there for these services and if it’s something I could/should pursue. For starters I’d like to design an app. In my head I could see where small companies would really enjoy and benefit from having someone build an app for them. I’d also still really enjoy designing a “portal” similar to what our company Intranet offers, but better on every level. Another thing similar to this is I’d like to design a workflow creator tool. The one inside our company Intranet is completely flawed and my employer began hunting for an outside tool to buy to fill this need. I also am looking at starting a few different blogs around things I’m passionate about such as weight loss, video games, “manly skills”, and adventure. I’m sure to really gain profit from these areas I’d have to really pin point a specific something inside of those categories but currently I’m just looking for experience. Once I see the possibility I think I could really define it more.

Do you still do the blog for money stuff?

I’m really glad they’ve plugged you in and are using you so much at your day job. The opposite of that is brutal and part of the reason I left. They weren’t using me at all and I had nothing to do. Let me tell you from experience applying at other jobs and learning what I’ve been learning over the last 6 months that any and all programming knowledge is the key to the future in the workplace. Make sure you’re learning as much as you can about PHP, SQL, and how to manipulate and query databases. The trends are all going towards software programming, big data analysis, and cloud computing. You’re in a good spot now, but you may be able to take what you’re learning and be more valuable elsewhere. That’s usually the only way to actually get a real ‘raise’.

I still have blogs that make me money, but it’s not my primary income and while it seems like ‘passive’ income, it’s really not. If I don’t keep writing and backlinking, the blogs stop making any real money after about a month of non-activity. That’s why it’s so important for businesses to have a blog and a strong social media presence because if they don’t, they don’t show up in Google where they need to. Think about it, there are so many websites out there now that Google can’t possibly keep them all at the top – so they favor the ones with fresh content. This applies to small businesses, blogs, or anything else online. Let me give you a real-world example:

I had a blog that was making $25 in October, but I wrote like crazy all of November and December. By the end of December, I made $600 from that blog, but after not writing anything for January and February, it’s back to $25. Now some of that was Christmas traffic, but it’s happening across all of my blogs. Unless I write on them and keep them relevant, they aren’t relevant. Don’t get me wrong, there’s still plenty of money to be made in blogs, but you have to do the same thing I told you with starting out a business. You have to find real problems people are having with the product, write to those problems with how your affiliate products are the answer – and the people will come. It’s still work though.

The best thing you can do is to just do something. You’re not going to get good at it until you try and fail. It’s okay to fail, it’s how you learn. I have way more blogs that failed when I first started, but I started two new blogs in December that now equal my top site. I learned from all of my mistakes and can now do it better, faster. As far as apps go, I don’t want to discourage you from trying, but there are some big learning curves and substantial marketing issues to overcome in the marketplace once you’ve made one. My advice there is to pick a platform, make a simple program, then make iterations of the program, making it do more and more or do a different programs over time, learning as you go. You can actually use your apps as a platform to market your new app releases, meaning your best app should probably be your tenth app (and it makes sense that it would be that way anyway).

I make more net now than I did “net” at my day job, but while my schedule is different, it’s sometimes twice the work. That’s because when you run your own business you have to work to get the business, and then you have to work to do the business so it’s almost double the work. At my past employer, the work came to me so half of the work was already done. I didn’t have to run an internal marketing campaign around the company asking for work and specifying why I should be the one to do it. Although, come to think of it, I probably should have. It would have riled a lot of feathers, but it strikes me as a better way to live within an organization. Anyway, I’m sure you’ll figure out what you want to do, but remember to enjoy the moments you have. Enjoy your family, and such.